"Apocalypse: Then and Now" at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery, John Jay College
February 13 through April 5, 2019
Curated by Thalia Vrachopoulos
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, April 2019
Noted curator Thalia Vrachopoulos put up an excellent show detailing the contemporary art by international artists interested in the consequences of nuclear disasters, manmade or originating with natural events. Hiroshima is dealt with, as is the nuclear reactor breakdown in Fukushima, as well as work involved with the increased presence and threat of nuclear war. Vrachopoulos’s strong essay makes it clear that the effects of radiation--and the reason they occur--are not going to go away, maybe never. Much new art reflects politics, but this show is slightly different, in that it illustrates the occurrence and possibility of events that will end politics as we know it--in the sense that nuclear war is more or less permanently destructive. This means that the art in the show is not only an expression, it is a warning. We cannot turn back the damage of trouble brought about by nature catastrophes, but neither have we paid enough attention to the real chance of a nuclear winter, as Vrachopoulos has pointed out.
Sadly, the Japanese have suffered more than they should from radiation--for human and natural reasons. Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been etched permanently into our historical imagination; their truth--or, rather, the despair of their truth--is taken up by the whimsical but affecting film by Takashi Arai, who photographs an aging American superbomber dropping pumpkins in the remarkable film Aftermath of 49 Punpkins (2014)--the number 49 refers to the number of Japanese cities the United States planned to drop atom bombs on. We know now that the bombings may well have been unnecessary, given that Japan was already contemplating surrender when they occurred. Seeing the plane take off from an airfield somewhere in America--the revisiting of the Japanese event here, among cornfields, is not without irony--and dropping pumpkins is at first slightly comical, but then becomes terribly melancholic because of the actual war event that precipitated the work. While the film records something farcical, the actuality behind it is beyond words.
Goro Nakumura contributes a picture of a tricycle (1985), ridden by a very young child named Shinichi Tetsutani (3 years and 4 months), who was badly burned in Hiroshima and died the same night after the bombing occurred. His father buried him with his bicycle in the backyard; after forty years, the father transferred his son’s remains to the family grave, while the bicycle, slightly misshapen from the blast and encrusted with petrified dirt, was donated to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum. The photo is dominated in the back by a deep shadow, while foreground is bright lit, although the bicycle itself is unilluminated. Both a child’s toy and an echo of total devastation, the bicycle reminds us that history can entirely contaminate innocence, and that art may be the only way we can preserve innocence in the face of war’s destruction. Kazuma Obara’s remarkable photos document the unnoticed victims of the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima; his “No Title Series” from Exposure (2015) documents, in pale-gray photographs, the people who have been victimized. In one, two rows of people, perhaps children--it is hard to tell because their faces lack features and their bodies are undefined--stand and sit lifelessly in front of a group of trees. Their anonymity is highly distressing; we do not know who they are. It seems clear that Obara is making the point that suffering destroys identity.
Joohyun Kang makes the power of destruction evident in an oil painting called Explosion (2018). The canvas consists of a web of lines, enmeshed in a center and moving outward. The center lines are white, while the surrounding sides move into a green and blue color scheme. The image might be a view of a natural catastrophe--the concentration of lightning--or it might be the flare-up of a manmade explosion; given the themes of this fine show, both interpretations would serve. At the same time, this is an abstract work of art, done by someone trained and living in New York City. It is an idiosyncratic conflation of influences, but it works. Photographer Elin O’Hara Slavick’s archival inkjet print, Fukushima Persimmon Tree Heavy with Contaminated Fruit (2017), presents a thickly overgrown bush with fruit in a gray tone suffusing the entire image. The fruit may be lush and abundant, but the feeling is one of death and decay. We know from the title that the fruit is contaminated. Is this the way the world will end? It is hard to say, but the powerful image offers no hope at all.
To conclude: this show, with too many participants to be mentioned, is a strong condemnation of the nuclear past, the present, and future. Vrachopoulos had made it clear, by choosing these artists, that we remain in a crisis regarding nuclear power. We can do nothing, of course, about the past, and the present is difficult to change, while the future exists beyond our knowing, even for those of us who want to alter its path. Fine art can make nothing happen, but it can describe, document, and elaborate the tragic events that took place and are taking place now. (In truth, “tragic” may be the wrong word, in that it does not reflect the brutality of desrtuction--we are now being overwhelmed by a drive toward thanatos, which seems to be a permanent part of the human scheme.) Still, perhaps a show like “Apocalypse: Then and Now” can give viewers hope that art keeps alive the impulse to stay alive--rather than succumb to darker instinct. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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